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Thoughts on tasting at Harlan

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I did my annual visit to Harlan yesterday. Actually, I missed last year, so we went through the entire portfolio of both the 2007s, which were just released, and the 2008s, which will be out in Spring 2012. I will report my reviews and scores elsewhere, but in the meantime, some interesting issues popped up.

I tasted blind, alone. This took about 45 minutes, or about 3 minutes per wine, which is fast, but not exactly the power-tasting some critics practice. Afterward, Paul Roberts, the sommelier, and Don Weaver of Bill Harlan’s staff joined me. I particularly was glad that Paul, who had impressed me so much with his knowledge at the Taste of Oakville Master Class, was able to assist me in understanding the wines. Later, Mr. Harlan himself came in, and we all had a hearty conversation.

One of the topics that arose concerned blind tasting. I’m a bit infamous now at Harlan for always liking The Matriarch so much, and I did yet again with the 2007. It’s Bill’s least expensive wine, at $85 considerably less than many another Napa Bordeaux blend. (All of Bill Harlan’s wines are called red wine, even though many, maybe most, qualify legally as Cabernet Sauvignon.) The Matriarch is a blend of the five BOND wines ($340 each), which are single vineyard wines from vineyards Harlan does not own, but has rigorously developed over years before admitting them to BOND-dom.

Concerning Matriarch, I was interested in two things: How was it determined which lots of BOND go into BOND wines, as opposed to The Matriarch. Obviously, these are subjective decisions, arrived at by the team that does the deciding (winemakers, Michel Rolland, Paul, Bill, maybe Don — I’m not 100% sure). I would imagine there’s initial disagreement, as you’d expect there to be in any group decision, until consensus is reached. So there’s a certain arbitrariness to the selection process. (Some of the lots are even sold off as bulk.)

The other thing, which I asked Paul about specifically, was the old concept of whether a blended wine could not be more complete than a single vineyard wine, which might contain divots–slight deficiencies here and there, in acidity, tannins, color, aromatics, finish, etc. A blended wine, by contrast (remember, we’re talking theory) can be a more intricate tapestry. This is a trusted concept in wine, celebrated in Champagne, although not in terroir-intensive places like Burgundy (although I’ve had great California Pinot makers tell me there’s no reason why a blend of, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley couldn’t make for a better wine than either one separately).

This is a touchy subject, one that critics justifiably might fear to broach, especially after having just praised the blend, as I had with 2007 Matriarch. Paul replied, as I knew he would, that while a blend such as The Matriarch might reflect the winemaker’s “craftsmanship” to a very high degree, it could never “break through” mere craftsmanship to “hit the pinnacle” of Grand Cru status.

This is a very powerful argument, one that is impossible to refute. It would be like saying that an authentic Da Vinci was no better than a painting from the School of Da Vinci. My reply was that I am apparently the only reviewer who tastes Harlan’s wines blind. It is very easy, when you are staring at the bottle, to be consistent and say that Harlan Estate shows a purity or power or whatever that Matriarch or The Maiden (which is a lot selection from the estate vineyard, made precisely the same way as Harlan Estate) do not. Anyone can find greater complexity in the BOND vineyard bottlings than in The Matriarch if they come prepared with that belief and the bottles are standing before them.

It is true that I found the 2008 Matriarch “a little rude,” as I wrote in my notes, and did not score it in the same league as the seven other 2008s. I think my hosts were pleased that, finally, I had stumbled into the truth that The Matriarch is of somewhat lesser quality than Maiden or the BONDS, much less Harlan Estate itself. But one thing Paul and to some extent Bill kept reverting to was that, while the wines early on may show attractive features, it’s the ability of the greater growths–the BONDS, Harlan ($750 and counting) and, I suppose to some extent, Maiden ($150)–to age over 15-20 years that makes them special, compared to Matriarch. To that, I could observe only that if Bill Harlan will invite me to some verticals of these wines, it might better help me to understand them when they’re young. I’m told he may be considering just that.

  1. Are you really tasting blind when you know which 8 uber-premium wines your are tasting? If you say that you are tasting single blind, you should only know one thing about the wine (Napa Cabs), but you know all but one thing about these wines. Are you really going to give any of those a mediocre score when there Bill is in the room next to you and may not offer you an invitation to a vertical tasting that you (and I) would love to attend? Sure, you may not know the Vecina from the Harlan, but you know that each wine is expensive and *should* score very high.

    And yes, you’re probably sensing some jealousy in my comment (I AM jealous…). Nevertheless, I don’t know if my scores would be slightly inflated in the same situation. Who would want to not be invited to a Harlan vertical because you didn’t like some of Bill’s wines?

  2. Couldn’t agree more CO Wine Press. No offense intended to Steve, but do you think this kind of thing is an isolated incident? I doubt it. In fact I think it’s the rule rather than the exception, and I’m not saying that so much about critics, as I am about the whole system. It all percolates down through the distributors, retailers, and finally to the consumers. You know, the nudge-nudge-wink-wink benefit of the doubt given to the big name labels.

    For you that have WS online accounts here is a very interesting post by Laube concerning the 1997 Harlan – http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/15336. Laube gave that wine a 97 on release, and I believe other critics might have given an even higher score. But then on subsequent tastings Laube gave it 88pts. The question is if Joe Shmoe’s name was on that bottle on release what score would it have received? Was that an isolated incident?

  3. Dear Colorado, for the reasons you pointed out, I am not reviewing the Harlan wines formally for Wine Enthusiast. Instead, I will be writing about them on the magazine’s website, without scores.

  4. Fair enough. Let me know if you get your vertical tasting invite with a plus one. I’d love to see if I can taste the wines without a bias.

    You obviously see the problem with this approach, whereas other critics almost only operate in this fashion. How often in your, WE’s, WS’s, WA’s and any other WX’s systematic tasting approach do you see flights of cabs with bottles from CA, WA, OR, AZ, CO, NY, and VA? Now that could be a truly interesting and elucidating tasting that could really help the average consumer rather than tasting flights of $100+ wines or only Napa Cabs. The results may surprise people (and that is why the Harlans of the world don’t let critics taste their wines in that fashion…)

  5. Steve I applaud your blind tasting and sticking by your palette regardless of the label. In my opinion, blending is the art of winemaking. Making terroir based single vineyard type blends is the art of growing grapes and that side of the coin.

  6. Steve,

    I love that your formal reviews in WE are totally blind. (Consequently, I pay more attention to your scores than any other CA critic.)

    Would the magazine ever consider purchasing the cult wines (at retail, mailing list, or secondary market – I’m sure you’d be able to source them), so you could throw them in with your regular tastings?

  7. Colorado, I don’t just taste $100 bottles. Here in California Virginie and I taste everything, from boxed wine to, well, Harlan. As to your other point, it’s true. But I don’t see any solution to it.

  8. James

    A palette is what an artist puts paint on. A palate is what we taste with.

    -Peter

  9. I know that you and other WE critics taste mostly wines that aren’t $100+. Your Harlan tasting is about as consumer friendly as telling Fourth of July tourists what a trip in the space shuttle is like. Interesting, but only pertinent to a handful of individuals/professionals. I would love to go for a ride on the space shuttle, by the way.

    What critics should be doing, more so than explaining why the high-quality, expensive wines are expensive and of high quality, is exploring the entire wine world and little-known yet high-quality wines.

    Did anyone see Gary Vee taste a Colorado wine, and be quite impressed with it, on Daily Grape today? Just sayin’…

  10. How can you truly call this a blind tasting, knowing that all these wines are from one estate? I challenge you to taste these wines blind amongst other comparable quality(not price) wines.

  11. Peter

    Thanks for calling me out on that. Heaven forbid I convey they wrong message to the readers. Next time I’ll make sure Apple doesn’t get the best of me.

    Regards

    -James

  12. Cory, as I explained, I am not formally reviewing the wines for Wine Enthusiast. I’m posting my thoughts on the magazine’s website. In the past, Harlan submitted their wines for my big semi-annual blind tasting at the Napa Valley Vintners. Last year, they neglected to do so, so I visited to catch up.

  13. Colorado, I’m just a guy who gets paid to review California wine. If somebody paid me to review Colorado wine, I’d happily do it.

  14. Again, fair enough response. However wouldn’t occasionally reviewing wines from other regions provide better insight into how Cali wines fit into the grand scheme?

  15. Colorado, continuing our discussion, how do you propose to pay wine writers for reviewing Colorado wines? I don’t mean to sound crass, but after all, we’re working for a living.

  16. And therein lies the rise of the bloggers and those who aren’t writing about wine (or specific regions) only for the money. If critics aren’t willing to write about wines other than those that a publisher is paying them to review, their influence will wane. While Robert Parker, Jr. was the most influential wine critic the world for quite some time, others have risen to meet consumers’ demand for information about wines from places other than Napa and Bordeaux. The wine world is much more democratic than it used to be. Did anyone in the U.S. pay any attention to Mendoza, Priorat, or Marlborough when you started wine writing? Look at the likes of Joe Roberts and Gary Vaynerchuk. They aren’t paid to review certain wine regions, yet they have gained a sizable share of the critic market. Just a few posts ago you wrote about how stale the California wine industry was beginning to be. If you think that way, then why not use your *expertise* and take your blinders off to find the next big thing?

    Why did James Suckling review Canadian wines on his own dime? Why did Gary Vee ask for more Colorado wines to be sent his way? Money will follow the writing; it shouldn’t happen the other way around. If you’re only writing for the money, you’re writing for the wrong reasons…

  17. Colorado, if you look into Suckling’s and Gary’s business models you will discover that everything they do makes them money. I’m terribly sorry to break this to you, but nobody writes seriously about wine without an income model. Joe Roberts does indeed review a wide array of wines but that is because he’s searching for a viable income stream, by his own admission (and I wish him luck). If you would like to send me a case of top Colorado wine, I’d be glad to review them on my blog. I was there about 6 years ago and tasted widely and I have to admit I found most of the wines inferior. Maybe things have changed. I did, however, like the fruit wines a lot.

  18. I didn’t say that James and Gary didn’t make money. I said that what they do drives their income. You claim that your income drives what you write. I also know that Joe is trying to find a viable income stream, but he still writes about a variety of wines and wine region. He hasn’t said that he won’t right about a region unless someone pays him. I hate to break it to you, but more people write about wine without income models than those that do. Serious wine writing is in the eye of the beholder.

    I know that you were here a few years ago and I’ve heard stories about your visit. I’m not one to gossip, so I won’t. I’m glad that you enjoyed the fruit wines, and yes the wines are improving every year. In fact, the last two years we say Doug Frost, MS, MW award two Jefferson Cups to CO wineries. I will try to find some wineries that are willing to send you bottles to review so you can see for yourself.

    I’m not trying to be rude or cut you down by arguing with you. I enjoy reading your blog and enjoy your willingness to be involved with your readers. Cheers!

  19. JonEVino says:

    Hey Colorado,

    I’m going to be in CO in May. I’ve never tasted any CO wines. Where would you suggest I go to taste the bounty that is CO?

  20. Jon – Depends on where you are going to be. Send me an email at coloradowinepress at gmail dot com or leave a comment on my site. I don’t want to completely hijack Steve’s site… ;)

  21. “while a blend such as The Matriarch might reflect the winemaker’s “craftsmanship” to a very high degree, it could never “break through” mere craftsmanship to “hit the pinnacle” of Grand Cru status.”

    Steve, I dont’ see much about this statement that is powerful. Seems to me they are merely saying that a blend can’t represent a place, either to the greatest effect or any effect. This pretty much goes without saying.

    However, it is absolutely true that a blended wine (one made with grapes from different places) can absolutely be a better wine than even a great wine from a single source.

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